November 20, 2015

COLLINS | Terror in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

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By SHAY COLLINS

“To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of production”

                       — Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

“I just wanted … something that everybody could understand easily, and everybody could share regardless of where they’re from”

                      — Jean Jullien on his drawing “Peace for Paris.”

I swore that I would not write about the November 13 and 14 terror attacks in Paris. I write from 3,665 miles away and amidst a deluge of photographs, videos, opinion pieces and articles. I swore that I would not write because of the difficulty of feeling that I knew anything beyond lists of facts and statistics: how many people were murdered, how many more injured, where the attacks occurred, which nations closed their borders, which states decided to stop accepting refugees.

In the place of resolute, dispassionate knowledge, I saw emotional knowledge. In a Le Petit Journal video, Angel Le poignantly discussed the attacks with his toddler son Brandon. Facebook users placed overlays of the French, or the Lebanese, or the Kenyan flag on their profile pictures. Although I swore against writing, I grew more and more interested with how images symbolized and catalyzed solidarity.

Consider Jean Jullien’s “Peace for Paris.” The drawing renders the Eiffel Tower at the center of a peace sign in quick, rough ink brushstrokes. Jullien posted it on his Instagram and Twitter accounts (@jean_jullien on both sites) on the night of the attacks. Following its spread online, “people are printing it on T-shirts, on posters and on flags, bearing it proudly in a global show of solidarity with the City of Light,” writes Robbie Gonzales for Wired. As of the time of writing, the image had garnered 60,000 retweets on Twitter and 168,000 likes on Instagram originating from Jullien’s accounts alone. When images become so evocative, powerful and transmittable, it is important to thoroughly question their effects.

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The influence of “Peace for Paris” undoubtedly derives from its reproducibility. Jullien even recognizes this fact, telling Co.Design’s Jessie Kuhn; “It’s an image for everyone. I don’t really care about ownership of the image.” Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — an essay of critical theory largely focused on laying the philosophical groundwork for a Marxist theory of film — contains a number of frameworks that relate to works such as “Peace for Paris.” Benjamin himself wrote from a state of political fear and uncertainty. Benjamin composed “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as a Jewish intellectual when Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany.

Benjamin largely focused on how the mechanical reproducibility (in contrast to hand copying) of art works, mainly films, could help instill revolutionary ideas in the masses. “By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence,” Benjamin writes. “And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder … in his own particular situation, it reactivates reproduced.”

“Peace for Paris” has gained its impact from the process Benjamin describes. I would not argue that Jullien’s original is worthless; years later, it may be valued as a cultural artifact of the deadliest terror attack in France’s history. But “Peace for Paris” is so immensely widespread because of its reproducibility — its ability to so easily meet viewers “in [their] own particular situation,” in their social media feeds. Benjamin writes that mechanical reproduction technology “advanced intermittently and at leaps at long intervals,” noting that “by the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions.”

COURTESY OF BILLBOARD

COURTESY OF BILLBOARD

Perhaps Jullien’s “Peace for Paris,” is emblematic of the next leap in mechanical reproduction: artwork whose mechanical reproduction happens mere hours after its creation and creates most of the work’s value. Benjamin contrasts exhibition value to “cult value,” the usage of Madonnas or idols in ritualistic art functions. Currently, “Peace for Paris” has seemingly zero cult value; Jullien himself refers to it as “an image for everyone.” In a Nov. 16 Think Progress piece, Jessica Goldstein quotes Rhode Island School of Design Graphic Design Department Chair John Caserta: “I think in absence of a truly personal statement, there’s a need for a universal one, a need for a premade one.”

Furthermore, the strength and resonance of “Peace for Paris” is further intensified by the ease with which it spread through social networks. Benjamin notes the masses’ desire to make art works intimate and immediate in his piece, writing, “Everyday the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” The question that still remains unanswered is, of course, why all of this matters.

As Sam Bromer ‘16 explored in his column last week, Benjamin and his Frankfurt School contemporaries Theodor Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer examined and discussed the worth of distraction in the masses. Benjamin put it thus: “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it … In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Benjamin’s words do not lend themselves to simple, easy analysis. In this context, however, it seems necessary to note that when we, the online mass, post and re-post and put flag overlays on our profile pictures, many thoughts and emotions come with the intended solidarity.

Already, people have questioned the visual culture of profile picture flag overlays: here is the overlay for Kenya? For Lebanon? Some have gone further and asked: how do these overlays and sketches affect how we think about tragedy and terrorism? As discrete points that require a symbolic show of solidarity, or as part of a far longer, far more complex international climate?

Shay Collins is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at scollins@cornellsun.com. Morning Bowl of Surreal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

One thought on “COLLINS | Terror in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

  1. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better!

    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept talking about this. I will send this post to him.

    Pretty sure he’ll have a good read. I appreciate you for sharing!

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